Hands-On With New Xbox Kinect Features
Following an unexpected and unexplained 12-hour delay, Microsoft has released its free Xbox 360 update to the public.
The system update offers quite a few new features, including a new interface; enhanced voice- and gesture-control for Kinect owners; easier ways to connect and play with friends; and access to live television channels and on-demand movies that will roll out later this month.
After spending some time testing out the new Kinect features, we were left largely impressed. But if you’re looking to completely ditch your controller and navigate your system using your voice and motion alone, think again.
The new Xbox splash page is a huge improvement over the last interface. The general groups, such as "home," "video" and "games," are laid out horizontally across the top of the screen, making it easy to see all the options available.
Speaking the word "Xbox" awakens the Kinect and readies it for your next commands. From here, you can choose one of the aforementioned groups by speaking its name. When you select a group, individual options will show up as graphic, square tiles; for example, you'll find "My Games," "Game Marketplace," and a few other selections under the game hub.
Microsoft has made it clear what you need to say to get where you want to go. When the system is awaiting your commands, it gives all available options a black background (so the words "My Games" is white on black). This highlighting scheme is really helpful for selections that are not straightforward. For instance, there is a game advertisement in the game hub; rather than saying the name of the game displayed to see the ad, you actually have to say "Advertisement," something you probably wouldn't surmise without the helpful cues. [Microsoft Aims to Connect Kinect Games with All Ages]
It's important to note that some of the choices will take you to other screens where a controller is required. You cannot browse the game marketplace or fix the settings on your system with your Kinect. This is a bit of disappointment, but at the same time, you may not want to use your voice to navigate the system anyway because it doesn't actually save you any time.
You won't ever want to use Kinect gestures to flip through the Xbox's menus. Navigating this way requires a lot of patience – you have to hold your hand on a selection for a couple of seconds, and the system is not that responsive (going from one hub to the next requires a relatively large swiping motion). Microsoft has taken a step toward the Minority Report, but it seems the technology still has a few more miles to go.
Searching with Bing
Kinect control really shines when you use it to do Bing searches (Bing is only available when connected to Xbox Live). By saying "Xbox, Bing, Julia Roberts," your Xbox will search your system and the Web for video games, movies, music and television shows related to the actress. You can search for specific things or more general genres, such as "sports" and "rpg." Choosing a movie or album will take you to another page where you can purchase your selection from various sources, including the Zune Marketplace, Hulu Plus and Netflix, while choosing a game will allow you to download it from Xbox Live (if it's available). [Hulu Plus versus Netflix: Which is the Better iPad Video Player?]
For the most part, the Kinect was able to understand our searches. It got "Michelle Pfeiffer" and "Jean-Claude van Damme," but had trouble with "Lilo and Stitch." It initially searched for near terms, such as "Leo and stitch," though after repeated tries the Kinect seemed to just give up and instead searched for "the last age." Go figure.
Of course, you can avoid this miscommunication problem by typing in your Bing search using your Xbox controller, but this takes a lot longer and is much more cumbersome. And don't get us started on the frustration of searching using gestures, where you actually have to drag individual letters into a search box.
Overall, the system update brings the Kinect more in line with what many people expected it would be able to do on day one. It's generally fun to navigate the Xbox with voice control and this feature is practically a necessity for Bing searches. We do wish, however, that Microsoft would give the Kinect full reign over all of the system's menus just so you don't have to switch back and forth.